We should not lose our humanity

We acknowledge that Europe can do much more to address this issue but we often forget that the EU is made of member states, some of which actively obstruct any pan-European solution, in their own bid to erect fences around their walls

With unprecedented popularity despite increased economic insecurity caused by COVID-19, the Maltese government closed its ports to stranded migrants and even mounted an attack on rescue NGOs for their role in saving lives. Despite its approval ratings for the handling of the COVID-19 crisis, one asks: why is a strong government like Malta’s so reactive to public opinion whenever xenophobes and racists start fanning the flames?

But there is also an underlying fragility lurking beneath Abela’s popularity in these uncertain times: the economic slowdown and social tensions triggered by shuttered economic sectors, undeniably mean the Maltese recovery promises to be a long and painful one. This is key to understand why he accommodates lobby groups like the construction industry, which he may bank on for a fast recovery, or even the hunting fraternity whose consent has always been an important peg in Labour’s hegemonic bloc.

But now Abela has pressed a button which is diverting anxiety and anger from real everyday problems of business closures and job losses, towards the perceived risks associated with the ‘others’: the migrants stranded out at sea and the NGOs who rescue them. There is nothing more effective in diverting public opinion from pressing social emergencies, even in time of hardship, than nationalism and fear of the ‘others’ who are depicted as a threat to our health.

We acknowledge the government’s concern to not divert resources currently active on the COVID-19 frontline. Housing irregular migrants in quasi-detention will mean placing them under quarantine. But these logistical challenges are part and parcel of being part of the international community and signing up to international obligations.

It is also true that Malta’s hand is coerced by Italy’s decision to close its ports (which ultimately diverts rescue routes to Malta). Certainly, Italy has been hit far worse than Malta in terms of COVID-19 infections and deaths; and even if Malta’s decision was motivated by health and resource concerns, there is absolutely no need to use this as a pretext to attack rescue NGOs.

It was far more capricious to allow 6,000 Maltese people the freedom to roam the countryside to shoot birds, with the stress on enforcement resources that it places, had public safety truly been the overarching reason to close Maltese ports.

Suspending our international obligations is not to be taken lightly. Abela has set a precedent, and just as his Joseph Muscat was constantly rebuked by hardliners for not pushing back migrants, Abela will face pressure to keep the ports closed even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Indeed his depiction of asylum seekers as a threat to public health simply contrasts his upbeat message on Sunday where he hinted at a quick return to normality. If the situation is under control, why is he being so intransigent on the migration front?

We cannot underestimate the pressures on our armed forces, who deserve all our gratitude for saving lives; but we do not think this justifies suspending a basic legal and humanitarian obligation: that of saving lives. As Abela said, it is not that Malta cannot patrol its SAR waters... for, will the AFM be prevented from rescuing a Maltese pleasure boat stranded on the high seas because of COVID-19? Or will we discriminate on grounds of race and legal status of people in distress? Would we deny victims the rescue of a shipwrecked cruise liner in our SAR zone?

We have also overplayed the health risks of rescuing migrants, by demoting the importance of saving human lives. In reality, globetrotting Europeans have been the main source of COVID-19 contamination, not boat migrants. And even in a time of war, fire engines are still there to put out fires; the same principle applies to our international obligations when people are stranded at sea.

We also question the fact that it was a One News interviewer who prompted Abela with a question on safeguarding public health “by closing borders”; if the PM is reacting to his own voters’ outrage of having rescued a boat on Friday night, then this raises questions on his sense of statesmanship. Will Abela lead, or just appease public opinion? This pattern of bending backwards for lobbies raises another question: isn’t the PM concerned of the long-term consequences of his actions by legitimising irrational, collective fears at a time of health emergency, especially with migrant communities who are increasingly viewed as a potential source of contamination and disease?

The reality Abela cannot ignore is that his comments will give xenophobes the legitimacy to troll and denigrate migrants and NGOs, both local and foreign, in the same way as Muscat’s aborted pushback in 2013 reinvigorated the far-right.

He only need to look within his party machinery to see how ingrained certain attitudes are, starting from the head of Malta’s own social welfare agency and his distasteful comments to scuttle migrant rescue NGOs’ ships. This only betrays an institutional tolerance towards hate-mongering.

Abela should take a leaf from his predecessors’ books. Like Lawrence Gonzi, Joseph Muscat did reaffirm Malta’s obligation to save lives, albeit contradictorily given Malta’s shady dealings with the Libyan coastguard. But the message was clear: migrants could not be allowed to drown on our watch. Now the Maltese government is looking the other way.

Foreign minister Evarist Bartolo has attempted to delegitimise migrant rescue NGOs, failing to recognise that they have simply moved in to fill a gap following the abandonment of the EU’s Operation Sophia. The argument that NGO rescue missions act as a pull factor for migrants is also fallacious, as it has been made abundantly demonstrated that migrants who crossed the desert only to end up holed in Libyan concentration camps, are willing to take any risk to reach Europe.

Indeed, the only collusion through funding which effectively exists is between EU governments and Libyan militias who administer what are effectively concentration camps where people are tortured and raped.

We acknowledge that Europe can do much more to address this issue but we often forget that the EU is made of member states, some of which actively obstruct any pan-European solution, in their own bid to erect fences around their walls. Unfortunately, by closing our ports we have sent a clear message that we agree with the status quo. Evarist Bartolo should realise that as a small member state at the frontline we are in the same boat as the NGOs and the migrants they rescue. We have been abandoned by richer and more powerful countries. But once again, to prove a point, we should not lose our humanity. 

More in Editorial